March 11, 2009 in Sports

Vandals hot heading into WAC tourney

Josh Wright Correspondent
Associated Press photo

UI’s Mac Hopson is All-WAC.
(Full-size photo)

Thursday: Idaho vs. Louisiana Tech at Reno, Nev., 8:30 p.m.

MOSCOW, Idaho – They’ve rattled off six wins in their past seven games to make a late-season charge up the Western Athletic Conference standings. Yet still, the Idaho Vandals haven’t exactly taken a stress-free route to their newfound status.

Not even in the past three weeks.

Despite coming into Thursday’s WAC men’s basketball tournament opener against Louisiana Tech as perhaps the league’s hottest team, the Vandals (16-14) have had to sweat out the lion’s share of their recent victories – often after erasing healthy deficits.

Last weekend, for example, Idaho slipped into a 12-point hole before registering a 59-56 win over Fresno State, the WAC’s last-place team. It was the club’s seventh league contest decided by five points or fewer, five of which the Vandals pulled out.

“We know things aren’t going to go our way (early in games), because it never does,” point guard Mac Hopson said. “We’ve just got to fight through (the adversity), and that’s what we usually do.”

“We’ve been in that situation numerous times before,” senior guard Trevor Morris added. “It’s not new territory. When you look at Boise State, we went down 15-2 or whatever.”

Idaho scarcely could have started worse during its trip to BSU. But it rallied from a 13-point deficit to topple the Broncos for the second time this season.

The conquests of Boise, after 14 straight losses in the series, are just two of a bounty of highlights in what’s been a memorable year for the Vandals compared with a bleak recent past. They came into the season having endured nine consecutive losing seasons and lots of roster upheaval the previous two seasons under George Pfeifer.

First-year coach Don Verlin brought 11 newcomers into the fold and quickly molded them into the most up-tempo Vandals squad in years. Piloted by Hopson, a transfer from WSU and first-team All-WAC selection, Idaho collected 12 home wins, key road victories at BSU and Nevada and the third seed for the conference tournament at Reno, Nev.

All these feats came after WAC media and coaches pegged UI to finish last.

“We’re feeling great,” Verlin said. “If you had told us at the start of this year that we’d be the third seed, we’d have (taken) it and not played the games. We’re extremely happy.”

This week, the Vandals will try to reverse their history as a non-factor in the WAC tourney. They’ve won just one tournament contest in three previous years, and that was a play-in game against San Jose State in 2007.

The single-elimination event will start with a matchup against sixth-seeded Louisiana Tech (14-17) at 8:30 p.m. The defensive-minded Bulldogs frustrated UI in the teams’ first encounter, eventually claiming an 11-point win.

Idaho then evened the season series with a 66-58 triumph last week in Moscow. Verlin said the payback came with his club playing at a much higher level than in the first meeting.

“I think (it’s) more of our team is getting better,” Verlin said when asked to compare the two regular-season games with the Ragin Cajuns. “I thought they beat us in every phase of the game down there. It’s going to be a tough game on Thursday night.”

If the Vandals win, they’ll meet the Nevada-San Jose State victor in the semifinals on Friday – a game that will be televised on ESPN2.

Playing in front of national TV audience for a spot in the WAC title game would be another heady feat for the once-beleaguered program. If it happens, UI’s chances of getting into one of two lower-tier postseason events – the College Basketball Invitational and tournament – would no doubt increase.

Verlin said an invitation to the NIT seems out of Idaho’s reach because of its RPI ranking of 120.

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